The Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation over 3,300 years ago from slavery in ancient Egypt. When the Pharaoh freed the Israelites, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise. For the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten and that is why Passover is also called “The Festival of the Unleavened Bread”. Matzo (flat unleavened bread) is a symbol of the holiday. Other scholars teach that in the time of the Exodus, matzo was commonly baked for the purpose of traveling because it did not spoil and was light to carry, suggesting that matzo was baked intentionally for the long journey ahead.
It is traditional for Jewish families to gather on the first night of Passover for a special dinner called a seder. The table is set with the finest china and silverware to reflect the importance of the meal. During this meal, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is retold using a special text called the Haggadah. The Passover seder is one of the great traditions of the Jewish faith. Following the pre-meal chants, the charoset is passed around. “With unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it,” is recited while biting into the Passover matzo, horseradish and charoset. One of the most revered of Jewish dishes, it closes the ceremony and begins the feast. Charoset is a dense fruit paste that represents the mortar used by the ancient Hebrew slaves in Egypt to make bricks.
People rarely associate Judaism with Italy, probably because Rome has hosted the seat of the Catholic Church for close to 2000 years. Jews arrived long before the Christians, however. Jewish traders built one of the first synagogues in Ostia Antica (an area just outside of present day Rome) during the second century BC. With time the Jewish population grew and swelled and historians have calculated that by the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), there were more than 50,000 Jews living in Rome and dozens of Jewish communities scattered throughout the Roman territory.
Like their fellow countrymen, Italian Jews suffered through thousands of years of invasions that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, but they managed to live fairly peacefully in Italy almost everywhere — from Venice, where the Isola della Giudecca (across the canal from Piazza San Marco) is so named because it was the home of many Jews, to the Arab lands of southern Italy. At least until 1492, when the Spaniards drove the Arabs back across the Mediterranean Sea into Africa and turned the liberated territories of Sicily and Southern Italy over to the Inquisition. Southern Italian Jews fled north to more tolerant regions, where they were joined by Jews from other parts of Europe as well. Florence, Torino, Mantova and Bologna all had strong Jewish communities during the renaissance.
Because Passover celebrates freedom, a small amount of charoset is placed on the seder plate as a reminder to Jews that they were once slaves and they should not take their freedom for granted.
(adapted from The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden)
In Italy there are various regional versions of haroset. The haroset of Padua has prunes, raisins, dates, walnuts, apples and chestnuts. In Milan they make it with apples, pears, dates, almonds, bananas and orange juice. Other possible additions include: chopped lemon or candied orange peel, walnuts, pistachios, dried figs, orange or lemon juice, ginger, nutmeg and cloves.
- 3 apples, sweet or tart
- 2 pears
- 2 cups sweet wine
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- 2/3 cups ground almonds
- 1/2 lb. dates, pitted and chopped
- 3/4 cup yellow raisins or sultanas
- 4 oz. prunes, pitted and chopped
- 1/2 cup honey or to taste
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Peel and core the apple and pears and cut them in small pieces. Put all the ingredients into a pan together and cook, stirring occasionally, for about an hour, until the fruits are very soft, adding a little water, if it becomes too thick.
Sweet-And-Sour Celery (Sephardic Passover Apio)
- 3/4 cup water
- 1⁄4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons mild honey
- 4 lbs celery, cut into 2-inch pieces, reserving about 1 cup of celery leaves (2 to 3 bunches)
- 1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf parsley
Cut a round of parchment paper to fit just inside a wide heavy 6-to 8-quart pan, then set the paper round aside.
Simmer water, lemon juice, oil, honey, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in the pan, stirring, until the honey has dissolved.
Stir in celery (but not leaves) and cover with the parchment round. Simmer until tender and liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup, 35 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, coarsely chop reserved leaves. Serve celery sprinkled with celery leaves and parsley.
Chicken with Lemon and Olives
- 2 chicken breast halves (about 1 1/2 pounds), skin removed
- 4 thighs (about 1 pound), skin removed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3/4 cup chicken broth
- 3/4 cup pitted whole green olives
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat. Add chicken; cook 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
Add onion and garlic to the pan; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add browned chicken, broth, olives, cinnamon, ginger and coriander; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes.
Turn chicken over; cook, uncovered for 15 minutes.
Remove the chicken from the pan with a slotted spoon; place 1 chicken piece on each of 4 plates. Add lemon zest, juice, and parsley to the pan; cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Spoon sauce over chicken.
Vegetable Farfel Kugel
Farfel is small pellet or flake shaped pasta used in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. It is made from an egg noodle dough and is frequently toasted before being cooked. It can be served in soups or as a side dish. In the United States, it can also be found pre-packaged as egg barley. During the Jewish holiday of Passover, when dietary laws pertaining to grains are observed, “matzah farfel” takes the place of the egg noodle version. Matzah farfel is simply matzah broken into small pieces
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 green pepper, diced
- 2 medium onions, diced
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 2 cups coarsely grated carrots
- 8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
- 10 ounce package frozen, chopped spinach, thawed and drained
- 4 cups boiling water
- 6 ounces matzah farfel
- 7 large eggs, whites only
- 1 ½ teaspoon salt
- Dash pepper
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts
- Dash paprika
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease 9 x 13 inch oven proof dish.
In a large, nonstick skillet, sauté the fresh vegetables in oil 3-5 minutes. Add drained spinach. Pour boiling water over farfel (in a strainer) to moisten. Add farfel, vegetables, salt, pepper and nuts. Cool.
Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into the farfel mixture. Sprinkle with paprika.
Bake 45 minutes or longer until browned.
Passover Honey Nut Cake
(adapted from A TREASURY OF JEWISH HOLIDAY BAKING By Marcy Goldman)
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 3 eggs
- 3 tablespoons orange juice
- 1 teaspoon finely minced orange zest
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 cup matzoh cake meal
- 1/2 cup finely chopped hazelnuts or almonds
- 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/3 cup orange juice
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Generously grease a 7-inch round layer cake pan. (If you do not have one that size, you can use a round foil pan of the same or similar size available in the supermarket baking aisle).
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, using a wire whisk, beat the granulated and brown sugars with the oil and eggs until the mixture is thick and pale yellow. Stir in the remaining batter ingredients. Turn the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is light brown and set. Cool for at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the Soaking Syrup.
In a medium saucepan, combine all the ingredients. Heat to dissolve the sugar and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until the mixture becomes syrupy. Cool well.
Pour the cooled syrup over the cooled cake, poking holes in the cake with a fork, to permit the syrup to penetrate. Allow it to stand for 2 to 4 hours to absorb the syrup.
Refrigerating this cake while it is absorbing the liquid helps the cake to firm up, which makes it easier to cut.